Bruce and Virginia (Ginny) Hilton were pastors, advocates, and loving parents of four sons, Steve, Philip, Thomas and Paul. At the time of Virginia’s death in October 2007, they had been married for 55 years, pursuing a lifetime partnership of justice-seeking that extended itself to a passionate concern for the rights of LGBT persons and for their full inclusion in the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church.
In 1980 Bruce and Ginny’s son Philip came out to them. Friends remember that Phil’s sharing of his gay identity provoked them immediately to gain as much of an understanding as they could and that there was never any doubt of their support for him.
Perhaps the couple’s greatest contribution in this area was bringing together in 1999 the Parents Reconciling Network (PRN) (http://www.rmnetwork.org/newrmn/connect/extension-ministries/parents-reconciling-network-prn/) with the initial purpose of presenting “a visible witness of parents in support of ending the denomination's anti-homosexual stance and providing their homosexual children the same rights as heterosexual United Methodists at the United Methodist Church's 2000 General Conference.” PRN became a significant witness by creating the Reconciling Stoles project in time for the 2004 and subsequent General Conferences, publishing several brochures containing tips for the parents of LGBT folk, and publishing an annual newsletter of useful information for parents and others.
Bruce’s 1992 book Can Homophobia Be Cured? Wrestling with Questions that Challenge the Church has been an important resource in the discussions.
Their witness was also offered one-on-one to those struggling with understanding and accepting LGBT people. Clay Berling, for example, was a member of Albany Community UMC when Virginia was appointed pastor there in 1982. In a memorial blog (http://www.cnumc.org/news/5735) written on the occasion of Bruce’s death in 2008, he remembered that…
…they as a team became a part of my personal enlightenment, and it is something for which I have been forever grateful. To expand our definition of humanity, love and compassion made me ashamed of comments in my past, along with providing me with an appreciation of God’s wider universe. Their work with writings and support of advocacy groups, such as PFLAG, will live on far into the future.
Attending meetings of Affirmation: United Methodists for LGBTQ Concerns (http://www.umaffirm.org/)and what was then known as the Reconciling Congregation Program (www.rmnetwork.org), Ginny and Bruce for years extended to many others the love and support they were offering their own son. Virginia and Bruce were a part of the “Sacramento 68,” a group of United Methodist clergy who jointly participated in the wedding of two lesbian members of Affirmation.
The couple’s refusal to accept the anti-LGBT position of United Methodist “authorities” was nothing new for either one of them. Bruce was raised in the home of progressive United Brethren pastor Rev. Vern Hilton and his wife Mary. He remembered that “social action and the idea of the Gospel having a national impact was emphasized at home,” according to a 2008 profile (http://eip.uindy.edu/profiles/hilton_bruce26_29.pdf) published by the University of Indianapolis (formerly Indiana Central College), from which he graduated in 1952.
Virginia also grew up in the home of a United Brethren pastor. According to an obituary published by the San Francisco Chronicle, her commitment to social justice manifested itself in her pre-teen years when, in 1940, she declined to sing at her eighth grade graduation ceremony because her African American classmates were not allowed to participate. She also quit the Girl Scouts because of its racist policies at the time.
Ginny Young and Bruce Hilton met at a mixer for freshman students at Indiana Central College, which her father had attended. Bruce was there because, as he told one interviewer, it was “just a fact” that he would attend – not that it was in any way an obligation he wanted to avoid. The two married in1952 and then went to Dayton, Ohio, where Bruce became a student at United Theological Seminary and graduated in 1956.
During his college and seminary years, Bruce began to pursue his talents as a journalist and writer, which became a major focus of his ministry. He became assistant city editor of the Indianapolis News while in college and was a feature writer for the Dayton Journal Herald while in seminary. An interview with the editor of the Otterbein Press led eventually to 11 years with the publisher as its editor for youth where he developed Friends magazine.
The Hiltons became involved in the movement for racial justice early on, when the fight for fair housing and against racially segregated neighborhoods came to them. A group of angry whites rioted near their Dayton home when a black family moved into the vicinity. Bruce responded to the mother’s fear for her children’s safety while walking to school by offering to accompany them.
Subsequently Bruce traveled to Selma, Alabama, to participate in civil rights demonstrations there and soon after was invited to join the Delta Ministry in Mississippi. Founded in 1964 by the National Council of Churches, the Ministry had ambitious goals to provide relief and to support economic, community and leadership development among Blacks in the most disadvantaged areas of the state. The Hilton family (now including all four sons) spent more than two years in the South at the nexus of a struggle that pitted their work against racist whites while also being criticized as “too radical” by the Black middle class.
They were evicted from their first home when the Ku Klux Klan accused them of being Communists, and they found a bullet hole in the window of a later home.
Virginia, who had trained as a nurse, was also active in the Ministry. She worked to educate the children of sharecroppers and was instrumental in the development of community health clinics.
The Ministry’s October 1965 newsletter described and responded to the range of controversy that surrounded it (http://www.crmvet.org/docs/6510_dm_newsletter.pdf). Bruce’s book The Delta Ministry, published in 1969, is his analysis of the work and is still available on amazon.com.
Following their time in Mississippi, the Hiltons moved to New York, where Bruce became Director of Interpretation for the World Committee on Literacy and Christian Literature. During this period he attended a conference at the prestigious Hastings Center, which was the world’s first bioethics research institute, which he joined as a writer and editor in 1971. Later he formed the National Council on Bioethics, which was first based at Drew University and later moved with the Hiltons to California. For the next 30 years, Bruce wrote, taught and consulted on medical ethics, which he saw as a human rights issue. Notable among this work were the San Francisco Examiner’s syndicated bioethics column and “AIDSweek,” both of which Bruce created. His book First Do No Harm: Wresting with the New Medicine’s Life & Death Dilemmas was published by Abingdon Press in 1991.
Meanwhile Virginia had become dissatisfied with “the limitations” of her role as a nurse, according to son Steve, who said she “saw the whole continuum of physical and spiritual care.” She received a Masters in Divinity degree from Pacific School of Religion in 1978 and became one of the first dozen women ordained to United Methodist Ministry in the California-Nevada conference.
Virginia worked as a pastor for 20 years, serving churches in Concord, El Sobrante, Albany and Sacramento. In the early part of her pastoral ministry, female clergy were still controversial in some congregations, such as the Albany church. The fact that she advocated for social justice causes sometimes added to the discomfort in some of her congregations. A family statement issued at the time of her death said she was "more apt to seek change through grace and dignity than through vitriol and volume, but was not above good old-fashioned demonstration and protesting through peaceful resistance."
In February 2001, the Methodist Federation for Social Action (www.mfsaweb.org) honored the Hiltons with the Lee and Mae Ball Award for excellence in social justice ministry.
(This biographical profile has been prepared by Morris Floyd from the published and online sources cited and his own memory. Their son Tom published a moving memorial to his mother on his blog If I Ran the Zoo (http://tehipitetom.blogspot.com/2007/10/virginia-young-hilton-1930-2007.html).
Biography Date: September 2016